Inspired by our “Memory of Human Kind: Stories from the Ottoman Manuscripts” exhibition, in collaboration with Trendeki Yabancı magazine we are publishing 6 stories by 6 writers. Every Monday a new story is on the blog. On February 1st, all 6 of the stories were published on Trendeki Yabancı.
The fourth story is “What Brings Quietude to Pass?” by Dilşad Çelebi. There are two remaining stories to post on the blog: “There is but a single humor” by Fatma Nur Kaptanoğlu and “Calf” by Emirhan Burak Aydın. Enjoy!
Münevver joined us the day after the court doctor had eaten opium until he expired. This incident which had taken place within the seraglio walls, albeit out of sight, had created a tremor violent enough to shake the harem to its foundations. After he’d learned that his court doctor had grown a certain dependency on opium, Murad apparently wished to see the idiom ‘to have his opium explode’ in reality, seeing as he sat his court doctor down before their chess match, and fed him opium until he exploded. Murad, Murad! Murad, for whom I have to do my utmost just to refer to him by his name, without any reverence, even in my inner thoughts; Sultan Murad IV, the bountiful, the formidable. Murad, who was overjoyed that he defeated his court doctor, after he made him eat opium until he expired. Murad, the reason I have imprisoned in this golden cage decorated with mother-of-pearls and tortoise shells. Murad, who has forgotten me here… Murad, who doesn’t even know that I exist…
They appointed me to arrange a bed for Münevver, since, not being called into the sultan’s presence, I had become an errand girl in the harem, a handmaid to the newcomers. Not that I complained. I would rather stay amongst the rose-scented odalisques of the harem, and to serve them, than to lay with him. Ayşe Kalfa said: “It is because of your flame-red hair, perhaps?”, knowing that I was not once called into his private rooms since my arrival. I’m not sure if that was the reason, but my hair indeed looked as if it was constantly on fire. Sometimes I would lay them on the pillow as a kind of consort. If it were because of my hair, it would be as simple as mixing henna and indigo in sumac solution and putting it in my hair to turn it black. Yet many red-haired ladies would be in the sultan’s arms within ten days. Not as red as mine perhaps, but their hair was red all the same. But, like I said, I wasn’t complaining. Indeed, I was pleased to be overlooked. Especially after Münevver’s arrival… When she opened her large, dark eyes with wonder, it was as if they had engulfed the entire harem with all the odalisques in their shade, but leaving all that space nonetheless. We were just as bewildered as her, actually. Bewildered by Münevver’s beauty. She couldn’t be more than fourteen years old. If we could, we’d stare into her beauty to imprison it in our own eyes, but who could imprison Münevver’s beauty? Beauty that would turn into torrents if it were water, an inferno if it were fire… The news of the arrival of a girl such as she spread around the harem. After the incident with the court doctor, of course.
The eunuchs were our only connection with the outside world, and they’d told us that the court doctor, known as Emir Çelebi, was a good doctor and a good man, his fondness for opium notwithstanding. Nevertheless, the sultan, having forbidden the consumption of tobacco and alcohol to the public after the great fire five years ago, and hearing that his court doctor was a veritable opium-eater, wanted to deal with it himself. He called Emir Çelebi to his presence and fed him his forbidden love by the handful, and they began to play chess. Like Kösem, his mother, Murad had a soft spot for this game. “No more, your highness,” the court doctor implored the sultan in tears, “even antidote in this quantity would be lethal,” but Murad did not budge. The doctor ended up having to swallow more opium than he would have in his entire lifetime. It proved to be not that long, anyway. Before they even properly started, by the time the sultan took his opponent’s three pawns and one bishop, the opium had kicked in. The doctor couldn’t focus on the board, he kept looking up. He knew what would befall him, but when the sultan scolded him and told him to look down, he obeyed and tried to move on with the game. Soon he couldn’t bear it any longer and lost himself completely. Before he had completely lost consciousness, he was saying that stars with flames trailing behind it were traveling in the seraglio ceiling. When Murad, who kept playing like nothing was out of the ordinary, checked him, the court doctor began to vomit. He vomited so much that they had to throw the Persian carpet in the sultan’s room along with the burning body of the doctor. If it were up to me, I wouldn’t scare Münevver on her first day with a tale like this. She did not have to know that the man she’d be intimate with was such a brute so soon. But I already told you that the entire harem was shaking with the news of the court doctor; who could keep it from Münevver?
I was the one who made Münevver’s bed. She tried to give a hand a couple of times, but I did not let her. “We all have our duties here,” I chastised her sweetly. “Do you want me to get in trouble?” She smiled bashfully. Oh, if only you could see the ends of her lips curl so… Her smile was so lovely, so polite… That’s when I understood. I no longer cursed the day I was taken from my village and brought into this harem, after Münevver arrived. My life gained a new meaning. I said, “This must have been why.” This must have been why I had to suffer so. I walked along these dark roads so that she, with her rosy cheeks, metaphysical eyes, and tiny nose, would come along and shed light on it.
Days went by, but Münevver lost none of her timidity. I used to think that she’d get used to the harem, that she’d relax into it like the other odalisques, become like them, like us; but she did not. She was always the same. In time, I realised why. Her timidity was not because of any bewilderment she might have had at first; Münevver was timid towards life in total. And she was so beautiful that she had right to be timid. One half of the harem sided against her with jealousy, while the other took her side for their own benefit. We were all convinced that her beauty would soon be discovered by the sultan. Münevver had a bright future ahead of her. Perhaps she would give Murad a prince. Her line would intertwine with the Ottoman line.
Unlike the others, I was neither jealous nor a lackey. Because I simply loved her. Love, and how! I was scared out of my wits that someone would break her wing in a dark spot. And she might have known, might have understood that I cared for her so. When the sisterhood gathered together for a night of song and dance, our eyes would sometimes meet. And Münevver would once again smile her lovely smile, before she averted her eyes. And I would be left to dream all night the ends of her lips curling.
It hadn’t been forty days since Münevver’s arrival, and we were in embroidery class. I was brought up with a needle and thread, and Ayşe Kalfa asked me to take charge of the newcomers. While I was showing one of the girls the subtleties of sewing a carnation, I was also watching Münevver. She pricked herself with the needle. She squealed the tweet of a little sparrow. I was scared witless like she had lost a finger. I dropped the handiwork of the odalisque and ran to her… I grabbed her hand and kissed her finger. All the newcomers were watching it all in amazement. It is just a needle, mistress! Why all the commotion? It’s the commotion of my beloved’s cry of pain! How would they understand? But Münevver did. The timid, wide-eyed Münevver understood and did not find it strange in the slightest. She reached out and wiped my lips with her other hand. A drop of blood from the pricked finger must have stained my lip. She smiled politely once more, and did not even avert her gaze. We looked into one another’s eyes and smiled. The ladies started to whisper behind my back after that. But I did not care. Münevver did not disapprove, she did not judge. I cared nothing about what the ladies were whispering. It was as if I was not confined within the doors and walls of the harem, all adorned with mother-of-pearl and tortoiseshell, but I had somehow ascended. I was above in the clouds, and I looked below and thought: When they were building the harem, when they were decorating its doors and walls, and when they removed the walls of a pearl’s home, and the walls of a tortoise’s home, and embellished the walls in our home with them, were they aware of the metaphor they had created? Or was it merely a result of the aesthetic taste of the period?
I couldn’t stay there long. They pulled me down again. When I touched the ground, I found myself preparing Münevver for her night with the sultan. After all, it was my duty to serve the newcomers. I bathed Münevver. I undressed her timid person. I didn’t have the heart to use a coarse glove on her body, I just used olive oil soap. As I scrubbed her figure which had just started to gain its curves, she averted her eyes bashfully to the marble floor of the bathhouse, smiling politely. Then I wanted to be the marble stone she turned her eyes towards. Summoning some courage, she turned her gaze back at me and I turned into stone. “I’m so afraid, Fatma,” she said, looking deep into my eyes. I wanted to burn the seraglio to the ground then. But I just managed to say, “Nothing to be afraid of.” Neither of us believed, but we pretended to. I toweled her, and perfumed her with rosewater. Two other handmaids helped me dress Münevver. That night another great fire broke out in Istanbul. Yet no one else knew, except for me.
When Münevver returned the next day, everyone at the harem regarded her with jealous eyes. They regarded her posture, they looked at her gait, her arms that wrapped her body like she was cold. But nobody looked into her eyes, wherefore they did not notice the change in them. Her metaphysical eyes with the cosmos in them had gone out. Only I saw it. No one else noticed. Yet she never looked at my eyes again. Perhaps she was angry that I couldn’t protect her, or perhaps there was nothing to protect. When she was asked to meet the sultan, I was called to bathe her, as if out of spite. I bathed her silently and dressed her for fear of breaking her wing. Münevver gazed far away. As if she could see the other side of the harem walls. I bathed her, she gazed. Days went by, until one morning I was woken to screams. The harem was pandemonium. When I could gather my thoughts and followed the screams, I realized that I kept hearing, “wanted to take her life”. I had to see that the black hair was strewn on the carpet, the small white palms turned upward, to realize that that life was my life. Time slowed down so much that I thought it had stopped. I shoved the odalisques that circled around her. I placed her head, her beautiful head on my knee. Münevver still gazed far away. She raised her arm and pointed. “Do you see that star, Fatma?” she said. “It’s as if it’s traveling with a flame trailing behind it.” I looked but could see nothing but the harem ceiling, decorated with mother-of-pearl and tortoiseshell. But when I looked back at Münevver, I saw what she meant: The cosmos had returned into her eyes. A flaming star was traveling in those eyes. Time resumed and sped up violently. Münevver began to vomit, her breath grew weak, her delicate white face turned blue. Despite all efforts, they could not save her; we could not save her. We were too late. They said that she dissolved the opium in mustard oil so that it would take effect sooner, and five or six times the amount her tiny body could digest. The opium she used to take her own life was procured from a eunuch in exchange for one of Murad’s presents to her. It all came to light when someone spotted the inlaid diamond ring in his pocket and reported him. The greedy eunuch wouldn’t have known it would come to this; he thought she wanted it for her pleasure. Poor Münevver wasn’t fifteen when she expired.
When a comet passed above us twelve years later, I recognized it to be the one that traveled over Münevver’s eyes all those years ago. Yet no one else knew.
About Dilşad Çelebi
She graduated with a degree at computer sciences from Istanbul Bilgi University in 2009 and moved on to acting, where she performed in a series of commercials and television series like Gönülçelen, Bugünün Saraylısı, İntikam and Eve Dönüş. Meanwhile, her children’s book series Yıldızsız Ülke (Land Without Stars) was published by Doğan Egmont. After completing her graduate studies in business at Istanbul Technical University, she began her doctoral studies there. She took acting classes from Çağ Çalışkur and dance improvisation classes from Mihran Tomasyan. Her first novel, Tomris, was published by Doğan Kitap. Dilşad Çelebi continues her theatre work in Çıplak Vatandaşlar and Uyandığımda Sesim Yoktu.